In 1967, the magazine Cosmopolitan featured an article about the growing number of job opportunities for women in computer programming. In the article, computing pioneer Dr. Grace Murray Hopper attempted to appeal to the magazine’s readership, commenting on the profession: “It’s just like planning a dinner. . .You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so it’s ready when you need it. Programming requires patience and the ability to handle detail. Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming.”
The first page of “The Computer Girls” article by Lois Mandel in the April 1967 issue of Cosmopolitan.
We can’t know whether Dr. Hopper really believed that women were naturally suited for computer programming. Her comment most likely served the rhetorical strategy of encouraging women to seek employment in the field by appealing to the (feminized) domestic role of homemaker. Moreover, Hopper’s quote and the article as a whole did two seemingly opposing things: they simultaneously reinforced traditional gender roles and expanded people’s assumptions about what work women could do. By drawing on the supposed innate talent of women to perform certain tasks, namely, planning a dinner and programming a computer, the magazine upheld normative assumptions about “women’s work” while also pushing the bounds of that idea to include computer programming.
Left unsaid in the 1967 article was the fact that women had already made a lasting impact on computer programming; they were programmers even before the work was called “programming.” These (mainly white) women who helped shape the growing field performed calculations and plugged patch cords into the earliest electronic digital machines of the 1940s. However, at the time, few gained recognition for their work, which was distinct from systems design and engineering, jobs overwhelmingly held by white men.
Were women really naturally suited for programming? Gendered work is work assumed to be suited for someone based on norms and expectations for feminine or masculine behavior. It presumes that men and women have distinct skill sets and that they’re naturally inclined to be better suited for certain jobs. Assumptions about which gender is best suited to work which job—including the unpaid feminized labor of childrearing and housework—have influenced workforce demographics and pay rates. Indeed, like in many other industries, expectations around what kind of work was best suited for men and women helped shape the modern field of computing and the business of data processing. In the 1950s, the field of computer programming began to professionalize, at which point women were welcomed into the workforce but shut out of upper management jobs. By the 1960s, some aspects of computer programming and information processing jobs, especially those in office environments, were considered clerical in nature, even though they required technical skill and a sophisticated aptitude for mathematics. White women were actively fed into this employment pipeline for programming and data processing tasks that aligned with feminized office work. This trend mirrored the earlier emergence of pre-electronic computational (number-crunching) work as well as stenography,